The Feb. 20th Chronicle Review has a set of articles about grad school life. The statistics on how grad school cultivates and enhances depression and mental illness are, well, depressing. But if you are or ever have been a graduate student, you knew that already.
Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the graduate students surveyed were not aware of mental-health services on the campus. And another Berkeley study recently found that graduate students were becoming increasingly disillusioned with careers in academe and did not view large research institutions as family-friendly workplaces (The Chronicle, January 23).
Linda Driskell at Rice University conducts a workshop for grad students in engineering; at the beginning, she splits the group in two. Half are asked to draw cartoons of someone working on their dissertation, the other, someone getting their degree:
The images are startlingly the same, year after year. We share the drawings, stick figures mostly, and talk about how the day’s workshop is going to help them avoid being the lonely, frustrated figures in the one set and become the joyous, proud figures in the second.
The thesis writers are always alone. In 10 years, a handful of cats has shown up, but always far from the writer, and once a giant steamroller, loaded with an anonymous committee, was shown bearing down on a tiny writer hunched in the corner with her computer. A symbol of the late hour is nearly always present: a moon showing in a high window, a clock on the wall reading well past midnight. And the signs of tension abound: piles of crumpled paper, general disorder around a computer, books stacked, open, on the floor. The faces, with their worried frowns, sad mouths, and sleep-deprived anguish, are the most poignant reminder of how our systems isolate and threaten the next generation of prospective intellectual leaders.
A companion piece gives some of the usual helpful advice: learn to recognized the signs of depression and ask for help; listen to your mom – eat right, sleep enough, exercise regularly; find a social-support network; work on time management (why are you reading this blog? oh wait, maybe that’s your social-support network!); find allies; if your relationship with your advisor is bad, try to fix it, don’t just put up with it. And, two online sources of help:
Find a dissertation coach or online support group if you are having trouble getting down to work. PhinisheD.com is one Web site where graduate students having trouble finishing their dissertations can find advice and support. The Chronicle has an online forum called “Grad-School Life” that includes a discussion focusing on dissertation and thesis support. See http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php
Consider a break. A temporary leave to seek counseling or reassess priorities does not brand you as a failure, and taking time off to work outside academe could reveal new possibilities. Leaving academe altogether may be the best choice for some. Talk to advisers, mentors, and others about whether sticking it out is the right decision.
I sometimes wonder if taking a break in grad school would have been a good move for me. Perhaps I never would have gone back, though. Who knows, that might have been better! If you are going to take a break, have a well thought out plan for what you are going to do when you leave – don’t just quit and hunker down in your depression. Even if you plan is just “I’m going to work at McDonald’s and write the Great American Novel”, okay, at least it’s a plan. Work out how you are going to do it, how much time each day spent working on the GAN, etc.
The problem with taking a break in the sciences and engineering, of course, is that the world moves so fast that by the time you come back, you may just be starting all over again at square one. It’s a lot easier, I think, to take a break in the humanities. But still – continuing in a path that is causing you nothing but misery, when you aren’t at all sure you want to do it – it’s worth thinking about whether a break is the right thing to do. At least letting yourself think about it as a real possibility will let you feel like continuing is a real choice, not a trap.